The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has filed an administrative complaint seeking more than $1 million in fines from the makers of North Face outdoor gear for allegedly making unsubstantiated claims that its footwear kills or controls bacteria.
The agency submitted the complaint against VF Outdoor Inc., the corporate parent of San Leandro-based The North Face, to a regional EPA hearing officer in San Francisco on Monday.
The complaint cites 162 sales of North Face boots and shoes allegedly labeled with the unsubstantiated public health claims between Jan. 1 and March 12, 2008. The shoes were sold either at the North Face store at 180 Post St. in downtown San Francisco or through other retailers.
The filing seeks fines of up to $6,500 for each sale, or more than $1 million, under a federal law regulating pesticides.
The EPA said in a news release that North Face made unverified claims online and in packaging that the footwear was treated with a microbial agent that controls and prevents bacterial and fungal growth.
The EPA and North Face both said that after the agency notified the company of its concerns in March 2008, North Face removed the claims from its Web site, product tags and packaging.
But EPA representative Katherine Taylor said, “The EPA takes very seriously its responsibility to enforce against companies that sell products with unsubstantiated antimicrobial properties.”
Taylor, who is associate director of the Communities and Ecosystems Division in EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, said, “Unverified public health claims can lead people to believe they are protected from disease-causing organisms when, in fact, they may not be.”
VF Outdoor Inc. issued a statement noting that the allegations are “based solely on descriptive statements online and on hang tags” and that the EPA has not claimed the footwear was unsafe.
The company said, “Although we dispute their assertions, when we were contacted by EPA regarding their concerns in March 2008, we immediately stopped making the claims they found objectionable, removed them from hang tags and our website, and revised the product packaging accordingly.”
The statement said, “VF Outdoor Inc. is dedicated to manufacturing and distributing high-quality The North Face products that are safe for our consumers.”
The administrative complaint charges the company with the sale and distribution of unregulated pesticides in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.
EPA Assistant Regional Counsel David Kim said that while a microbial agent may be regulated, or approved, for certain uses, it is considered an “unregulated” pesticide when it is sold for an unapproved use.
Kim said the company now has 30 days to respond to the complaint. If the case it not settled, it will be referred to an administrative law judge, who will hold a hearing at a future date.